Prevention-based pilot program for at-risk juveniles advances

A bill that would allow the Indiana Supreme Court to establish a preventive pilot program targeting at-risk juveniles won the approval of the House Judiciary Committee Monday, advancing to the House floor.

Senate Bill 596 would enable the state’s highest court to establish a two-year pilot program to assist juvenile court judges in five Indiana counties. It’s goal: to provide voluntary preventative programs for at-risk children.

Standing before the committee, House sponsor Rep. Donna Schaibley, R-Carmel, noted the bill was based on successful outcomes of the Westfield Youth Assistance Program established in 2009. WYAP was formed to serve as an early intervention advocate for youths 17 and younger who struggled with challenging life circumstances.

The program’s implementer — longtime prosecutor and now-retired Hamilton Superior Judge Steven Nation — testified that he, too, often sees kids with destructive patterns entering the juvenile system.

“We need to reach out to give programs to these children before that time,” Nation said, adding that it makes no sense to offer juveniles services after they’ve already been placed in jail. “It makes more sense to reach out to them before they get into trouble so that they can have services, so they can have careers and go on and graduate from high school.”

Presenting a heart-wrenching example to highlight the program’s chief goal, Nation told of a young Westfield boy who began acting up in class. When the teacher referred him to WYAP, it was discovered the boy had accidentally struck his father in the chest with a baseball while pitching together over the summer. The hit killed him.

“It was a poor family that didn’t know what to do,” Nation said. Through the program, the boy and his family were set up with a trustee and psychiatric services. He ultimately graduated from Westfield High School and was never placed in a position that could have led him to juvenile court.

“That’s the whole hope,” Nation said. “Get services so they don’t get into the system.”

Those sentiments were echoed by former Hamilton County Sheriff Mark Bowen, who said the program’s success during the past decade has resulted in a sharp drop in Hamilton County juvenile detention numbers.

“Our average population prior to this program being implemented was around 40,” Bowen said. “Now we’re down to six to nine youths being detained as a result of these programs that we were able to put in place to keep them out of the system.”

Nation said his hope for the pilot program is to expand similar services statewide through SB 596, which also requires nonjudicial state agencies to assist the high court in implementing the pilot program. The committee unanimously approved the bill’s advancement to the House floor, but reps. Greg Steuerwald and Anthony Cook both voiced concerns about why the bill should only proceed as a pilot program.

“I’m still of the opinion that we shouldn’t restrict it to a pilot program if we can,” Steuerwald said. “Think of the money this thing is saving. It’s dramatic.”

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